Microsoft Surface Diary: Bing, SmartGlass and settling in with our tablet

Here’s a good sign: For the last couple of mornings, I’ve gone looking for my family’s Microsoft Surface tablet — at one point thinking it had either been lost or left at the office — before finding it under my wife’s pillow or next to the bed.

In other words, she’s using it after I’m falling asleep at night, and finding plenty of things to like.

This has been an evolution. Early in the week, when I asked how she was liking the Surface — which we purchased in lieu of an iPad — my wife’s response was, “It’ll do.” But last night, when the topic of the Surface came up again, she had good things to say about the built-in Bing apps, in particular, explaining how she had used one of the mapping features to take what amounted to a virtual tour of the Egyptian pyramids. She was impressed.

“Bing is their Google, right?” she asked.

Personally I’ve also become a fan of Bing Daily, a built-in app that aggregates content from wire services and newspapers, along with vivid images, to recap the day’s news. I’m finding myself staying upstairs longer in the morning, browsing the latest headlines, rather than going downstairs to my home office and turning on my computer. The editorial choices feel like a digital version of a network newscast. The NBC News app is nice, too, but not as pretty.

I’ve also been spending quite a bit of time with Xbox SmartGlass, the app that turns the tablet into a second screen and remote control for Xbox Live on the Xbox 360 console.

SmartGlass: Browsing on the tablet, controlling the television.

SmartGlass shows a lot of promise, but the experience isn’t yet as smooth or as comprehensive as it should be. For example, after navigating to the search field on the TV screen, the keyboard doesn’t always pop up automatically on the Surface, requiring me to hit a couple of buttons or tap the screen to activate it manually.

There are also odd inconsistencies. For example, I was able to search and find YouTube videos via the Xbox Live search function on the TV screen, using the SmartGlass keyboard to type the search query. However, I wasn’t able to find YouTube videos using the separate Xbox SmartGlass search feature on the tablet screen. Other types of content can be found there, but not YouTube videos. That’s weird, because ultimately the video would be played back on the television, no matter which interface was used to search.

Overall, the third-party app integration with SmartGlass is pretty weak right now. For example, you can access the Amazon Instant Video app on Xbox Live using SmartGlass on the tablet, to control playback, but you can’t search Amazon’s library using the SmartGlass keyboard on the Surface screen, at least not that I could find. In the Amazon app, you’re still stuck scrolling back and forth to pick letters, the modern equivalent of hunt and peck.

However, when SmartGlass works, it’s pretty awesome. I was able to use the SmartGlass app and keyboard to search on the tablet for my daughter’s favorite program, Dinosaur Train, and discover that it’s available for streaming through Netflix. I browsed episode descriptions on the tablet, pressed a button to play one of the episodes on the Xbox 360, and boom, there it was on the TV screen.

Pretty darn slick, and promising.

Another feature of SmartGlass is the ability to use the tablet to control the new version of Internet Explorer for Xbox Live — moving the cursor, typing web addresses and scrolling on the television using your fingers on the tablet. In my experience, this works well from a technical standpoint, but I’m still trying to figure out when and why I would want to use a browser on my television.

Long term, Microsoft needs to smooth out the experience and get app developers on board to realize the potential of SmartGlass. (SmartGlass is on Windows 8, Windows Phone and Android for now, with iOS app coming later.)

Meanwhile, I continue to experience sticker shock over the price of the some of the apps in the Windows Store … but I’m still evaluating this overall, and I’ll leave that for a future post. Stay tuned.

Previously on GeekWire

  • Guest

    Thanks again for compiling this Surface Diary. Seriously, I’ve not seen such an informative or relatable review of a tech product from any other source.

    • uxo22

      I agree 100%, a very nice series of reads, done in a real world environment and no a sterile office environment. Great Job Todd, keep’em coming.

    • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

      Add me to the list of folks who really appreciate these posts. Much more helpful than anything else I’ve seen out there.

      One thing I’m most interested in out of this is if the Surface is better suited as a family device than the iPad (which may be better suited as a personal device).

      I’m getting the impression that’s the case, but would love hear more your (and your family’s) thoughts on that.

      In that regard, since you have a child, maybe you could tell us about child safety features? That’s an area Microsoft has been strong in, so I’m curious if that comes through the Surface.

      • http://profiles.google.com/seamus.mcgowan Seamus McGowan

        Chris, I need to check that out myself. As kind of an aside you may want to check out the Kids Corner feature in WinPhone 8. If they had that feature in Win 8 it would be great.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=587622307 Chris Brown

          They don’t have kids corner, but something very similar. Just go into settings and create another user account. Then you can switch between users on the device, that’s what I do now.

          • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

            Great, thanks every one!

      • http://www.mainstreetchatham.com/ JimmyFal

        Separate user accounts are a huge plus in that area. There are some glitches that are as easy as closing an app and reopening. Sometimes you have to turn off system and back on. Patches will come soon. I’ve been pounding this thing with everything I can throw at it, so I may not represent the typical user. When the apps arrive the Surface will truly arrive. Plenty of apps for me.

      • SilverSee

        The Surface (as with any Windows PC) allows separate user accounts. Limited user accounts are created by default, which are ideal for kids. Windows RT is still Windows under the hood, so there are comprehensive Family Safety features built in too:

        http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-8/set-up-kids-accounts#1TC=t1
        My wife and I have two kids and use these features all the time, and there are similar features on Xbox Live.

  • http://www.facebook.com/J4rrod Jarrod Justus

    This is great. I come back here everyday hoping the next post is up. Thanks!

  • Ruby

    This is really cool. Love your posts and feel good about the product. I am ordering the Surface now….

  • Forrest Corbett

    Thanks for these reviews. I’m very interested in SmartGlass, it might be another reason I get a Surface. Unfortunately, I would prefer it work with MCE and Microsoft has all but killed that off. I don’t want yet another device to plug into my TV. My HTPC does all that just fine, but could use a better UI. iTunes movies and music, DVR, Amazon movies & music, Hulu, Netflix… all work with MCE, unllike the xbox.

    • VHMP01

      Why don’t you try W8 on your HTPC? You could then get Kinnect plugged (With W8 Drivers) and get most out of it! If you do it, tell me how it went, because its just an idea I got so far.

      • Forrest Corbett

        I have put W8 on my HTPC. It’s been horrible. I usually don’t like to hold onto the past, but I’m still considering going back to W7.

  • http://www.mainstreetchatham.com/ JimmyFal

    It’s a 1.0 but its a great 1.0. This tablet will be a major player. I think what is simply being massively underestimated is the number of people that need a compact tablet that also runs Office. Don’t use your fingers in Office, that’s what the keyboard and touchpad are for. Lots of bugs, soon there will be a lot less.

  • http://profiles.google.com/seamus.mcgowan Seamus McGowan

    Give Xbox Music a try, free 30 day trial promo going. Not all the options of a Spotify but its pretty good.

  • http://twitter.com/StonetipApps Stonetip (Jon)

    So far I’ve found the hardware as pleasing or better than my iPad (3). Nice little things like being able to vampire-charge my phone off the USB port. A few app crashes and rough edges in apps. Yet most (Metro) UI/UX is good and easy to get the hang of. Desktop is a bit disappointing using touch, but quite decent using nothing but the touch cover.

  • robecop

    Have you tired the new app on the surface Perfect365? its awesome.

  • lokanadam

    @tlowdermilk says netflix backend problem for surface is resolved